by Janet Gilmore
“Hi, Jan? It’s mom.”
I knew the voice at the other end perfectly well. Why was she identifying herself?
A few months earlier, at Thanksgiving dinner, my mother looked around her dining room table filled with people she loved, sighed and said, “We’re very lucky. We have lots of things to be grapefruit for.”
Forks stopped in mid-lift.
Grapefruit? Did she just say grapefruit?
“Mom, did you just say we have things to be grapefruit for?”
“Yes, but I meant to say… um, uh….”
She couldn’t think of the word “grateful.”
My father looked at me. I looked at him. Later he called me into his sickroom.
“Jan,” he began in his whispery old man voice. “Mother is losing her mind. What are we going to do about it?”
There was a LOT to think about in that sentence.
Parkinson’s disease had him almost bedridden.
I held his hand. He had enormous hands. I thought what a good thing it was to have a father with big hands to depend on.
It took a long time for me to think of how to answer.
“Well, Dad, whatever happens, we’ll take care of her. I promise.”
Two tears ran down his face. He had loved my mother for 70 years but couldn’t take care of her any more. He was frightened of leaving her and of leaving her to me, but he had no choice.
My mom stayed in their house for one year after dad died. Almost a year to the day, a woman drove up the driveway of that house. She was enchanted with the sight of the house in the snow, and she bought it.
Mom got herself admitted to a suburban retirement home that we called “Walker City.” She lived independently at first, but late one afternoon she called me.
“Jan, this is mom.”
“I just realized who you are. You’re my daughter! I thought I didn’t have any children, but now I remember.”
“Stay right there; we’ll be right there.”
My husband and I sped to Walker City, collected my mother and drove to a nearby restaurant. The waitstaff put a seven-inch-high unopened package of clean tablecloths under her, so she could reach the table to eat.
“Okay, mom, what’s going on?”
“I just realized today that I have children. You’re one of them. You’re my daughter! I felt so sorry for myself thinking I was all alone until I realized who you are.”
“Who did you think I am?”
“A very nice young woman who was kind to me.”
“Why would I be nice to a stranger? I’m not even allowed to talk to strangers; remember?”
“Well, I don’t know; you just were. You came to visit me often.”
I looked in her eyes. The beautiful eyes that saw right through me my entire life. “Why do you think I call you ‘mom’?”
She laughed. She had what I think of as “giggling dementia.” As long as there was a spark of sense left, she recognized how silly some of the things she said were, and she’d laugh. Then I’d laugh with relief that she was still there — somewhere I could still reach her.
Forgetting that you have children, though, is a milestone.
Power shifted that day. I became the parent of my own mother. She could no longer do things for herself, so I did them for her.
We moved mom to the Assisted Living wing of Walker City. We found a wonderful companion for her.
“I’m not unhappy,” she told me.
Then, distracted, “Jan, you see that man over there? He died two years ago.”
She lived in the fog for seven years. The day she died remains the saddest day in my life. It’s been almost three years.
Some people never dream about their beloved dead, but I dream about my parents all the time. Scary dreams, weird dreams, funny dreams.
The other night I dreamed that I was hopelessly lost in Montreal, and couldn’t find my family. My cell phone didn’t work, of course, and I was wearing high heels. I walked and walked. My feet were in agony, and I was still lost. Suddenly, in the dream, I was in an empty room and a phone rang: “Hi, Jan. Don’t worry, I can help you.”
It was my mother, and we both knew it.
She hung up and entered the room, took my shoes off, tsk-tsked over the condition of my feet, and I knew in the dream I’d be all right just because we were together again, and we always helped each other.
I’m told I sighed and relaxed in my sleep.